But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
It may go without saying, perhaps from my sentence structure or the things I’m given to thinking about, that I lost one of my few, genuine, unreserved artistic heroes this weekend when David Foster Wallace took his own life at the age of 46. And while not presuming for America, or the world, although I’d like to, I can fairly say we–much of his work, particularly his masterpiece Infinite Jest, served as a touchstone for my circle of friends in college.1
I’ve been trying to express very briefly why his work is good and important, at least w/r/t myself and, if I am lucky, by extension its significance to others. And all I could come up with was this: so much of his work was terribly honest about the complexity of everything and the need to gloss that complexity to function as a human being. I guess I should say: the only way to gloss the complexity of everything honestly is to admire the enormity of what we have to underestimate in order to exist. That his famously difficult work often distills into something as seemingly philosophically simple as his Kenyon commencement speech cited above, a somewhat more sophisticated evolution of the Golden Rule, is, I submit, the point. (For further reading, I recommend 8 November YDAU, pages 343-374 in Infinite Jest, his tour de force about the philosophy of AA.2)
At least that’s I think the direction of his fiction. We are fortunate that, before this tragedy, he left us with “Good People,” a quiet masterpiece that still seems lost in the glare of his more electric works but which I hope will rise in our estimation. Glossing it: it’s about those transformative moments when the things we continue to tell ourselves are real actually become real. I hope you read it.
As a word of caution, I would recommend against reading any artistic or social significance into his suicide. According to his father, Wallace’s depression became untreatable, or at least the treatment became worse than the disease3. Anyone attempting electro-convulsive therapy after 20 years on anti-depressants is unimaginably sick, very simply, and deserving of all the empathy his work would suggest.
1. I mention that because, for better or worse, it’s important: “We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded engagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion.” (IJ p.694)
2.”…so here she is, apologizing for so long, trying to tell a truth she hopes someday to swallow, inside. So she can just try and live. When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny. Gately tries not to think. Here is no Cause or Excuse. It is simply what happened. This final speaker is truly new, ready: all defenses have been burned away. Smooth-skinned and steadily pinker, at the podium, her eyes squeezed tight, she looks like she’s the one that’s the infant…. And the fact that it was so good to hear her, so good that even Tiny Ewell and Kate Gompert and the rest of the worst of them all sat still and listened without blinking, looking not just at the speaker’s face but into it, helps force Gately to remember all over again what a tragic adventure this is, that none of them signed up for.” (IJ p. 378-379)
3. “Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of the two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” (IJ p. 696-697)